Jason Savage claims he’s a journalist.
I say he’s not.
We’re both kinda correct.
Savage’s regular job is as the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. No question about being a journalist there. He’s just a political hack. But “outside the scope of his employment,” to use the snappy phrase coined by his lawyer, Savage runs a website called the Maine Examiner. It features unabashedly conservative takes on current events, mixed with semi-news-like attempts to embarrass Democrats and liberals.
So, he’s a political hack there, too.
That doesn’t matter. Political hacks have the same rights as everyone else to operate propaganda sites, even if, like Savage, they’re the sorts of cowards who do so anonymously. Nowhere in the Constitution’s First Amendment does it require the exercise of free speech to be conducted ethically.
The state GOP repeatedly denied it had anything to do with the Examiner, even though it regularly reposted articles from it on social media, particularly after the Examiner published a couple of negative stories about Ben Chin, a left-wing candidate for mayor of Lewiston. Those articles may have tipped a close runoff election in favor of Chin’s right-wing opponent. The stories contained just enough fact to convince some voters to reject Chin, even though the allegations weren’t particularly accurate or remotely fair.
That shouldn’t have been surprising, since the postings were written by a political hack. Except readers would have no way of knowing that, because Savage kept his role in the site a secret. That made it more difficult to assess the Examiner’s credibility.
A California computer geek eventually exposed Savage as the owner and operator of the Examiner. The state Democratic Party then filed a complaint with the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices (motto: In Reality, Far Less Impressive Than Our Name Would Suggest), claiming the site was a thinly disguised tool of the Republican Party and an attempt to circumvent campaign finance laws. Savage defended the Examiner as “community-based news” and said he kept it anonymous because “certain people” would have attacked his stories if they knew he’d written them.
The ethics commission held a hearing on the matter in late February, and, as it nearly always does on tricky ethical issues, decided to punt. On a 3-2 vote, it opted not to investigate whether Savage was operating the site as part of his job or as the sort of bizarre hobby that only a political hack would enjoy.
This prompted all sorts of liberal handwringing. The Maine Sunday Telegram editorialized (in an ironic footnote, the editorial didn’t carry a byline, so we don’t know who wrote it) that the commission had “decided that if it looks like it came out of a newspaper, that’s good enough for them.” As a result, said the paper, “political operatives can send anything they want over the internet as long as they make it look like journalism, and the paid staffer who wrote it swears he did it in his free time.”
Well, yes, that’s called freedom of the press. Freedom of the scummy press, to be sure, but constitutionally protected, nonetheless.
Savage exulted in this victory. “Freedom of speech is still alive in Maine,” he correctly asserted in a press release put out by the GOP. But then he undercut his argument that the Examiner was his independent project by adding, “The Maine Republican Party will continue to fight for candidates who will make Maine a better place to work, live, and raise a family.”
Since the Republican Party allegedly had nothing to do with the Examiner, it’s difficult to figure how the ethics case would have affected its alleged battle for betterment – unless Savage’s indulgence in journalism and his occupation as a political hack are so intertwined as to make it impossible to determine where one stops and the other starts.
If that’s the case, the commission still got it right in refusing to intercede. They decided by not deciding that hacks have exactly the same First Amendment rights as anonymous Telegram editorial writers, political columnists who put their names on everything they publish and everyone else who may feel a need to express an opinion. The internet hasn’t changed that.
A journalist is anyone who claims to be a journalist.
Everyone else is free to say they don’t believe that person.
So, Savage is right. And so am I.
I’m just a little righter than he is.
Disclosure: This column also appears in some newspapers owned by the same corporate entity as the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Savage rebukes may be emailed to email@example.com.